MRSA infection may begin as a small bump on the skin. Treating the early signs can help you avoid complications like pneumonia or sepsis.

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Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is an antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can cause skin infections. In the early stages, MRSA can be treated with wound care and antibiotics. Without prompt treatment, the bacteria can travel to other parts of the body and cause serious infections.

Here’s how to spot MRSA in the early stages, how it’s treated, and how you can prevent the infection.

MRSA is a bacteria that lives on the skin of approximately 1 in 30 people. It is most frequently found in the groin or buttocks, armpits, and nose.

Most MRSA infections are acquired during hospital stays, called hospital-acquired MRSA (HA-MRSA). However, people may also be exposed during skin-to-skin contact with other people or objects that have the bacteria on them. These infections are called community-acquired MRSA (CA-MRSA).

You may become exposed to MRSA through:

  • touching a person who has MRSA
  • sharing personal hygiene items – towels, razors, etc. – with a person who has MRSA
  • touching other items – objects or surfaces – that have MRSA bacteria on them

Exposure to MRSA does not guarantee you will contract the infection. The bacteria needs to go deeper into the skin to cause infection. This can happen if the bacteria enter through a cut, wound, or opening in the skin.

Having MRSA on your skin may not cause symptoms. The earliest symptoms of MRSA infection include a bump or wound that may look like a bug bite or spider bite.

In this early stage, you may also experience:

As the infection worsens, you may also have other symptoms like:

Your doctor may diagnose MRSA based on a physical exam and health history. If you have had a recent hospital stay or live in close quarters (like in a dormitory) with others, you may be more likely to develop MRSA.

Your doctor will order lab testing of the area to confirm the diagnosis. This may include taking a sample of pus or blood to test for the bacteria. Not only will testing confirm MRSA, but it will also give your doctor information about which antibiotic to treat it.

Some MRSA infections can heal with proper wound care. Keeping the area clean and covered will prevent transmission of the bacteria to others. Your doctor may also drain the bump (abscess) under local anesthesia to help with healing.

MRSA is resistant to some antibiotics, so you may need antibiotics to clear more stubborn infections. Resistance means that common medications will not kill the bacteria. Common antibiotics that MRSA may be resistant to include:

  • penicillin
  • amoxicillin
  • oxacillin

However, there are other antibiotics that can effectively treat MRSA.

Community-acquired MRSA infections may require oral antibiotics to treat. MRSA acquired in hospitals may require intravenous (IV) antibiotics.

Without treatment, MRSA can spread to other parts of the body and lead to severe infection.

Infections may affect the:

In the most severe cases, MRSA can lead to sepsis and death.

The skin is covered in microbiome. This term is used to describe the community of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that live atop the skin and makes the skin an active part of the immune system.

MRSA is only one bacteria common on the body. It can live on the skin without causing harm. When the skin is injured, the bacteria can enter and cause infection.

If you get MRSA on your skin, it may go away within hours, days, or months without any ill effects.

With early identification and prompt treatment, MRSA infections respond well to wound care and antibiotics. Take medications as directed, and tell your doctor or other healthcare professional if symptoms haven’t improved in 1 or 2 days.

People with MRSA on the skin do not need treatment. They may not develop an infection for a long time, if ever.

You may not always know if you have MRSA. Still, there are ways to prevent infection and spreading bacteria to others:

  • Practice good hand hygiene: Wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol.
  • Pay attention to wounds: Keep any skin injuries/bites clean, dry, and covered while they heal. Monitor them for early signs of infection (redness, warmth, pain, pus).
  • Do not pick at wounds: Picking at wounds can spread the bacteria on your body and transmit it to others.
  • Avoid sharing personal care items, such as:
    • razors
    • towels
    • toothbrushes
    • sports equipment (mats, for example)
    • clothing
  • Take medications as directed: Be sure to finish all your medications as they are prescribed to prevent antibiotic resistance.
  • Share your status: if you have MRSA or have had it previously, let your healthcare professional know so that you can help prevent spreading it to others in the hospital.

How soon do symptoms develop with MRSA?

You may notice symptoms of infection 1–10 days after exposure to the bacteria.

How easy is it to pass MRSA to others?

It is less likely to spread MRSA to others if it is on your skin versus having an active infection. Covering wounds with MRSA is vital because the pus contains many bacteria.

Who is at the highest risk of developing an infection?

People who regularly have close contact with others are at the highest risk. This includes children in school, college students (dorms), military personnel (barracks), and athletes. People who are hospitalized or have certain medical devices are also at higher risk.

Speak with your doctor if you have a wound or bump that won’t heal – especially if you have a fever. MRSA is the cause of more than 70,000 severe infections and up to 9,000 deaths yearly. Early treatment can stop the infection from spreading and becoming more serious.